Monday, April 29, 2013

Why People Underestimate The Educational Attainment Crisis

It is a testament to how bad I am at keeping up with articles that I intend to read that I am just getting around to Dana Goldstein's Atlantic piece on David Coleman, a major force behind the Common Core standards. It's an interesting read and sheds a lot of light on one of the individuals quietly having a great deal of influence on contemporary American education. Coleman, Goldstein reveals, is a deep believer in the value of a rigorous curriculum rooted in the liberal-arts. As she explains,
Coleman was a lead architect of the Common Core standards, which emphasize canonical literature—think Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda—and serious nonfiction texts across all subjects, from math (Euclid’s Elements), to science (medical articles by The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande), to social studies (the Declaration of Sentiments from the feminist Seneca Falls Convention of 1848).
All implementation hiccups aside, it's an appealing vision of a rigorous curriculum that would provide a strong backbone for the kind of work that might prevent the high remediation rates (Goldstein notes: "20 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges, and about half at community colleges, are assigned to non-credit-bearing remedial courses.") that currently exist at the college level.

However, Goldstein slips into a bit of sloppy editorializing as she starts to assess Coleman's vision. She remarks, with respect to the notion that all students ought to be prepared for a college level curriculum: 
The problem is that by waiting until college to begin tracking students according to their career interests, the American education system may be consigning more and more young people to poverty. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 17.1 percent in the U.S., compared with less than 8 percent in Germany and Switzerland. These nations link high-school curriculum directly to the world of work, placing students in private-sector internships that typically lead to full-time, paying jobs. The Common Core, on the other hand, has a blanket definition of “college and career ready,” which, according to Carnevale, ignores the reality that each student has different strengths and weaknesses, and that every job requires a specific set of skills—some of which are best taught in the workplace, not in the classroom. Not to mention that with almost 54 percent of recent college graduates jobless or underemployed, and with total student debt surpassing $1 trillion, college has become a much riskier investment than it once was.
Where to start? First, we might hope for a bit more tight of a correlation between youth unemployment and tracking students based on career interest. You know, just in case there might be a few confounds driving the international differences between youth unemployment rates, like, say, just shooting in the dark here, a global financial crisis that has affected different countries (and their respective employment rates) to varying extents.

But putting that to one side, let's look at the crux of the argument, the idea that because students have "different strengths and weaknesses, and that every job requires a specific set of skills" means that students should enter different tracks in high school, some with a rigorous Common Core-esque curriculum and others which are more focused on technical skills and career preparation. It seems that the different strengths and weakness of students are pretty much irrelevant from a policy perspective. That's a question relevant to how you teach, not what you teach. But as for the "specific set of skills - some of which are best taught in the workplace, not in the classroom," I just don't see how this is a persuasive argument against giving every student the Common Core.

Is it true that some non-zero number of students won't (and shouldn't) go to college because their specific skill set will allow them to be more successful as an electrician or some other venture? Of course. But that doesn't mean that those students should be exempted from the rigor of a high quality curriculum. And not because they've made some mistake and should actually value college more, but because (1) without traversing a rigorous curriculum that would allow them to go to college, they won't even have the option to go to college if they change their minds or find they have misjudged their talents or the job market and (2) the rigor provided by a robust curriculum provides important soft skills that are crucial for succeeding in a career.

Goldstein waves at this second point a bit when she explains Coleman's response to Carnevale's criticism: "Coleman counters this critique with the classic case for a liberal-arts education: that it teaches students how to think, providing a powerful intellectual foundation for any line of work." While Coleman certainly has point that such an intellectual foundation is important, I think he undersells the true value of such studies. Because the demands of rigorous curriculum are quite large, students have to learn precisely the types of skills, from patience to organization to emotional control, that are so crucial to persisting in a job of any sort. (James Heckman's research on the economic value of such skills has been highlighted in lots of places of late, most notably in Paul Tough's recent work.) But on top of all that, because these career-prep skills are allegedly not best taught in school, they can easily be learned after a student finishes their high-school education, on the job somewhere.

But for me the really frustrating thing about the general tone of this critique of Coleman's work is that it so blithely accepts that huge swathes of our population aren't college ready based on some vague notion that "College just isn't for everyone." As I've already said, of course no one expects absolutely everyone to go to college. But we can and should expect way more people to not only go to college, but to go to college prepared for the work they will do there.

Probably the most largely underemphasized statistic in all discussions of education in this country is the fact that in 2011 of those adults aged 25-29, just 32% had Bachelor's degrees. I think that if those people who run around saying "College just isn't for everyone" had to say instead "College just isn't for 68% of the population" they would get much funnier looks. So why don't we question such assertions? Because in the mind of many Americans (especially the well-educated, well-off types who tend to spend their time writing or thinking about education policy), lots of people already go to college, and so some people choosing another path isn't such a bad thing.  But because of huge disparities in educational attainment by income level, the gut estimate of many American's about what percentage of the population already attends college can be way off. (If you want to see this in action, 12PLUS has a great video that demonstrates it pretty well. Availability heuristic strikes again!)

To get a sense of just what that means, Andrew Rotherham provides a useful stat: "In 1972 thirty-eight percent of high-income Americans earned a bachelor's degree by age 24. Now, 82 percent do. Among low-income students, however, that figure was 7 percent in 1972 and it's 8 percent now." It's an astounding gap; while 82% of high-income Americans will graduate from college, just 8% of low income students will. Now if you're a high-income American, your sense of how dire the educational attainment crisis is will likely be skewed by the fact that so many people around you are getting degrees. And that makes it much easier to stomach the idea that some for some people the most successful path might not include college. But that's only because you think "some people" means 15% and not 68% of the population. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why don't books disrupt higher education?

I am quite excited to let you know that in addition to writing here on my personal blog, I will also be doing some blogging over at the new YEP-DC blog, Recess, on a monthly basis. My first post is up now, and it features me playing the role of Old Man CJ and harumphing a bit about how exaggerated I find claims about educational technology (especially MOOCs).

In reading a recent Op-Ed in the Times that shares some of my disillusionment with MOOCs, I was struck by a sentence that made me think that I maybe wasn't harsh enough in my assessment over at Recess. In his piece, A.J. Jacobs notes:  "On the other hand, how can I really complain? I’m getting Ivy League (or Ivy League equivalent) wisdom free. Anyone can, whether you live in South Dakota or Senegal, whether it’s noon or 5 a.m., whether you’re broke or a billionaire."

The implication here is that lectures from prestigious professors are the core of an Ivy League education. No doubt, that's an important part of the whole deal, but I remain unconvinced that it's as valuable as it seems at first glance. It overlooks the importance of peer effects, which experience tells me has always been a crucial force in my own education. Amplify that to the level of peers you encounter in the Ivy League and you're talking about an incredibly influential factor that doesn't come with MOOCs. 

But the more damning piece of evidence running against the notion that MOOCs ought to be disruptive by virtue of the fact that the deliver an Ivy League experience in a more efficient way is that books already do the same thing. Lots of professors whose lectures demand a premium at the best universities around the country and world write books about the subject they teach. Lots of non-professors-but-still-really-smart-and-informed-people also write informative books on a range of subjects. And often those books feature explanations that have been contemplated at great length, edited, and made generally consumable. You can read books in your home, on the metro, in places without Wi-fi. Your access is constrained only by an upfront (relatively small) investment in paying for the book. Indeed, what's amazing about books is that you can even learn directly from amazing professors or thinkers who are dead, something no university, no matter the size of its endowment, can promise you. And yet the self-study allowed by books has never threatened universities because universities offer a delivery method that is of a different kind completely and offers advantages books (or online lectures) cannot. 

Unless, of course, you're Will Hunting:  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Go Big or Go Home

The Op-Ed pages of the New York Times are usually a pretty good place to get yourself worked up about education reform, no matter which side you come from. There's a good amount of schilling from both sides, but Jal Metha's recent piece grabbed my attention for its evenhandedness in tone and its comprehensiveness in diagnosis and prescription for what ails American schools.

I happened to read it on the heels of another Times Op-Ed piece from William J. Reese, which mixed an interesting historical perspective with a less engaging rehearsal of the arguments of the great testing wars that have been inflamed once more by increased attention on cheating scandals in Atlanta and D.C. (On that matter, I think Matt Yglesias nails it here.) Trudging through the testing debate, littered as it is with a lot of straw men and hackneyed arguments, always leaves me with a disproportionate sense of frustration.

Metha's Op-Ed, though, helped me see why the testing debate is so dissatisfying. First, discussions over the role of testing rarely veer from their concern with the effect on teachers to discuss the impact on students, except to lament in a hazy way how hard it must be on them to take so many tests. And while we're busy thinking about the pressure such exams put on teachers (to be clear, I'm not dismissing that concern, teachers do important, hard work and deserve methods of support and evaluation that promote a positive work environment), we too often fail to keep in mind just how unacceptable the current achievement levels of students are. As Metha explains:
In 2009, the Program for International Student Assessment, which compares student performance across advanced industrialized countries, ranked American 15-year-olds 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math - trailing their counterparts in Belgium, Estonia and Poland. One-third of entering college students need remedial education. Huge gaps by race and class persist: the average black high school senior's reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continue to be at the level of the average white eight grader's. Seventeen-year-olds score the same in reading as they did in 1971.
Beyond this crucial oversight, the debate over testing frustrates me because, Metha's analysis reveals, it is such a small part of what is holding back improvements in teacher quality. However, because testing has such salience in the daily work of teachers, it commands disproportionate attention in education reform debates. Metha's vision for professionalizing the teaching profession, though, would overhaul the system for recruiting, training, and evaluating teachers in a much more profound and effective way. From reducing the number and increasing the quality of teacher preparation programs to reducing the proportion of hours teachers spend teaching and increasing the amount of time spent preparing and collaborating to developing a robust set of professional standards that guide licensing.

It is a compelling and comprehensive vision that is well worth your time.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fighting Is Fun; Progress Is Better

Two pieces of education news caught my attention recently. Among the usual din of fights over common core implementation, teacher evaluations and other similarly controversial reform efforts came two bits of information that show how broken the system is for some students in some places, but also give us a reason to hope that progress is possible. First, a post from the New America Foundation's Early Ed Watch blog pointed out the surprising and depressing fact that for all the talk of late about Pre-K, a startling number of states do not even offer their students free, full-day kindergarten through their local public school district. Using a yearly map from the Children's Defense Fund, Clare McCann runs down the current state of play for kindergarten throughout the nation:
Most states do not guarantee by law that children will have access to a full day of kindergarten, and six states don’t require districts to offer any type of kindergarten…Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that about three-quarters of kindergartners were in full-day programs as of 2010. But those data do not say whether those children’s parents pay tuition for part of the day, or whether the lowest-income and neediest children are enrolled in kindergarten programs.
The bottom line is that while we're spending time debating the whether and how to get our nation to universal Pre-K, thanks to a push from the President in the State of the Union and through his recently released budget, we still don't even have universal full day kindergarten.

The other piece of information that came to my attention, that high-achieving low-income students tend not to apply to or attend the most selective colleges, despite having the ability succeed at such schools, has been covered quite thoroughly by David Leonhardt at the Times and Matt Yglesias at Slate. As Leonhardt explains:
Only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges, according to the analysis, conducted by Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard, two longtime education researchers. Among top students in the highest income quartile, that figure was 78 percent.
So where's the hope in these two ostensibly discouraging facts? For me, they are evidence of how a considerable portion of the shortcomings of the current system aren't the result of malfeasance or disagreement on the part of policy makers or school officials or teachers, but rather the natural byproduct of designing and administering a hugely complex system. Would a system without such bugs be better? Certainly. But given that we don't have that sort of system, these naturally-occuring shortcomings can be opportunities for reform that don't face the same up-hill political battle that other reform issues do and, in the case of getting talented poor kids to the best colleges, may not even require legislative or policy fixes.

While universal kindergarten, if mandated from the federal level, might face pushback from states'-rights types, state-by-state pressure from unions (for whom the increase in Kindergarten teachers would require an increase in demand for teachers) and reformers alike could start to move the ball on such things. Additionally, undoubtedly funding kindergarten might be a challenging demand for state budgets to meet, but providing the necessary funding might be a leverage point for federal policy-makers.

As for helping low-income high achievers, it seems that one of the main impediments to changing the habits of such students is the type and clarity of information they are provided with. In some cases its a paucity of friends and family who have successfully traversed the path to selective schools that prevents such students from pursuing enrollment at the best schools. But, my own experience with trying to get good information about the availability and prudence of taking out student loans to pay for graduate school has shown me, greater availability to get good advice and guidance on how best to proceed with choosing and handling the college admission process would undoubtedly have a hugely positive effect on the status quo. And as David Leonhardt has said in a follow-up piece on another bit of research from    Hoxby and Avery, research has shown just that. That's a job that government agency might be able to do, but it might also be something that a creative non-profit could tackle.

In both cases, though, they represent opportunities for the traditionally opposed poles of the education world, who seem so often to love the opportunity to fight about their differences, to come together on what should be common-sense fixes to our system.